Mastering your homegrown tracks for film and TV use is a different process from mastering them for other purposes like publisher pitching, artist release for CD or streaming, or radio airplay. When mastering (whether doing it yourself, or hiring a professional mastering engineer to do it for you), here are four things you’ll want to approach differently for film and TV than for other uses.
1. Watch Those Levels! (Don’t Over-Compress)
There’s a general belief nowadays that “louder is always better” when it comes to mastering.
Well, that isn’t true, but it’s even more untrue when it comes to film and TV tracks. When you master for film and TV, the biggest mistake you can do is try to “make it sound like the radio,” because the radio is not where the track is going to be used! It’s not going to have to compete with a bunch of other songs played in sequence over the airwaves.
Instead, your song has a very specific role and purpose in the context of a visual scene, and from a dynamic range standpoint, you need to leave enough flexibility in your mastering to give the music editor (the person who ultimately incorporates the track into the picture) some room to work with.
If they don’t need a “louder,” more compressed sound from your track, great – they can just leave your mastering as it is and they’re done. On the other hand, if they do need to “push” the levels a little more, then you’ve given them some dynamic range to work with, and they can compress/limit more as needed. If you’ve already “pushed everything to 11” in your mastering, there’s nowhere for them to go, and there’s nothing they can do about it. That alone can get the song tossed from the scene.
2. Keep It Smooth, Baby! (Don’t Over-EQ)
On a related note, you don’t want to “hype” your track too much in terms of its frequency distribution.
For example, if your song has vocals, when mastering it for publisher pitching, you might tend to push the upper midrange frequencies with EQ to bring the vocal more “out front” of the instruments so the publisher can focus primarily on the lyrics.
But in the context of fitting it into a scene in film or TV, if any one element in the song is too prominent, it can stick out like a sore thumb and distract the viewer’s attention from other elements in the scene – essentially “stealing the scene” and ruining its overall effect.
Remember: mastering is all about enhancing an already-good balance of the elements in the mix, and nowhere is this more true than when mastering for film and TV. So let each component of the mix “sit” in its rightful, musical place in the master and don’t hype the vocal, the bass, or the sizzle on the cymbals too much. It can be the kiss of death when it comes time to put all of the elements of the scene together later. As with compression and levels, if the music editor needs to emphasize (or de-emphasize) one or more frequencies, they can use their own EQ to make minor adjustments, and not make your master really out of whack in the process, because you haven’t given them a result with too much in any one frequency area.
3. Set A Good “Ex-sample”
Here’s a common mistake I see among recording artists who use tracks from their mastered artist CD to send for film and TV use…
They copy the track directly from their finished CD (or if they have it, use the original, CD-ready WAV file of the finished master) and send it to the music supervisor, music editor, music library, or whoever needs the track on the other end. The problem is, CD tracks are always – by requirement – at a sampling rate of 44.1 kHz, while nearly all audio in film and TV is at a sampling rate of 48 kHz (or a multiple of it, such as 96 kHz or 192 kHz).
Ultimately, sending in a 44.1 kHz track creates problems for the music editor, because they can’t use your 44.1 kHz track in their 48 kHz audio without doing extra work. At a minimum, they’ll have to take time to convert the audio from your sampling rate to theirs, and that extra time costs them money.
So what should you do? Well, many songs that are bound for CD are originally recorded at 48 kHz, even though they are eventually “resampled” to 44.1 kHz during mastering to meet the CD standard. If your tracks fall into that category, then make sure that you apply your mastering to the original, 48 kHz tracks and send those to your contact on the other end, not the tracks that were prepared for or extracted from the CD.
On the other hand, if your original tracks were recorded at 44.1 kHz (or any sample rate other than 48 kHz), then resample them yourself to 48 kHz while mastering (there are plenty of tools available to do this, many of them built into today’s DAWs and mastering software; just check your manual), and save your counterpart time (and money) in their job – believe me, they’ll appreciate it! Just make sure that if you are resampling, make resampling the very last step (after compression, limiting, EQ, stereo widening, etc.) in your mastering process.
4. Stop Dithering Around!
And speaking of last steps, another very common mistake I see – again very commonly with artists using their CD tracks – is that they send tracks that are dithered, which is definitely a no-no. “Dithering” is a process that came about – just like converting to a sampling rate of 44.1 kHz – as a result of the CD standard. All audio CD tracks must have a “bit depth” of 16-bit, regardless of the bit depth at which they were originally recorded. The dithering helps to mask out “unpleasant” sonic side-effects that can occur from the conversion to 16-bit. It is accomplished through some fancy psycho-acoustic trickery by actually adding low-level noise to the audio to cover up the loss of data that occurs. Yep, it’s real, true, honest-to-goodness NOISE that is placed – permanently – into those audio tracks that you spent so much time (and likely, money) on to make sound so beautiful!
The point here is that film and TV tracks have no need for dithering (and its associated noise) because they have nothing to do with the limitations of the CD standard. In film and TV, audio is placed alongside the video data stream, and doesn’t have the same 16-bit limitations that CDs have. So, if you recorded your audio at 24-bit (which is still probably the most common bit depth for recording), just leave your audio at 24-bit, master it that way, and give those 24-bit results in all their glory to your contact on the other end. Again, they’ll thank you for it!
There’s another benefit to avoiding dithering besides not introducing unnecessary noise into your film and TV tracks: Once dithering is added to a track, it can’t be removed, so any manipulation of the track’s audio after the fact is also applied to the dithering noise. If the music supervisor needs to do any additional work on your tracks so they’ll fit correctly into the scene and you’ve provided them with un-dithered tracks, they won’t be carrying all that noise along with whatever they’re doing. And trust me, adding EQ or compression or other stuff to a track that contains dithering noise can result in some really squirrelly – and very unpleasant-sounding – audio! As with overly-compressed or overly-EQ’d tracks, a track that includes dithering noise, in the worst case, can mean the difference between your song being used – or not used – in the film or TV show.
That’s A Wrap!
Those are just a few things to think about (and do differently) when mastering your tracks for film and TV. If I could give one more piece of valuable advice, it would be to think as if you’re the music editor when mastering your tracks. Anything you can do for them in advance that will make their job easier will make all the difference in the world for your relationship with them. Trust me: you’ll thank me later! 🙂
Want to learn a LOT more about mastering? Fett’s Ninja Mastering online program starts the week of November 14th, 2016! Learn more & register here: www.NinjaMastering.com!
About the Author
is an independent music producer and engineer, published author, music career coach, and co-founder of the Azalea Music Group in Nashville. He helps artists and songwriters reach their fullest sonic and emotional impact with the recordings he produces, and also teaches them how to do it themselves. His diverse list of clients includes Davy Jones of the Monkees, Grammy-winning songwriter Don Henry, and international guitar virtuosos Tommy Emmanuel and Muriel Anderson.